Carmel performing arts chief shaped by heritage

The Indianapolis Star

CARMEL — On a warm spring day in 1968, a nervous 6-year-old Cuban girl boarded a plane with her family, one-way tickets to Miami in hand.

The Cuban revolution had changed the course of Tania Castroverde Moskalenko’s future. Instead of enjoying a good life in Cuba, where her father had been studying to be a doctor, her family was thrust into post-revolutionary chaos. The medical school closed and her father, Lazaro, was sent to work in sugar-cane fields.

“I don’t remember a lot because I was so young, but I know we moved in with my grandmother in Havana,” said Moskalenko, 51, who is approaching the end of her first year as chief executive officer and president of the Center for the Performing Arts.

“I also know that when my father was allowed to come back, we didn’t recognize him.” He had been forced to spend a year and 29 days doing hard labor. “He had lost so much weight and was unshaven.”

Those were hard times for her home country. By the mid-1960s, Fidel Castro’s revolution had taken away political freedom, shut down small businesses and virtually eliminated private property. Thousands of Cubans wanted to flee.

And so it was 44 years ago, on May 15, when Moskalenko boarded one of President Lyndon Johnson’s “freedom flights” — planes sent from Florida to Cuba, eventually bringing 250,000 Cuban refugees to the U.S.

It would not be the last time life would lead her down an unexpected path.

Moskalenko’s journey has taken her from Miami to Memphis; from childhood ballet classes to university music school; and from a desire to change the world as a CIA agent to changing it through the performing arts.

Artistically, she identifies most with her Cuban heritage, but her cultural influences have grown with each step along the way. In mid-life, she developed a love of Russian culture, thanks to her second husband, Alexei, a professional ballet dancer from Moscow.

Just last weekend, those cultural influences were on display when she unveiled the upcoming season of performances at The Palladium, including a variety of musical genre and artists — from classical to country, southern blues to Russian ballet.

She came to Carmel from suburban Memphis with a reputation as a successful promoter and manager of the arts.

“Tania is really good at connecting people to each other in ways that benefit them,” said Deborah Hernandez, director of research and development at the University of Memphis, who worked with her in planning a Latino Festival.

“Not only did she get us amazing talent, but she also leveraged media connections to get us publicity, and she personally got key influencers involved from the entire spectrum of our community,” Hernandez told The Indianapolis Star.

In a recent interview with The Star, Moskalenko chuckled when asked how she ended up in Carmel.

“I never thought I’d come to Indiana,” she said, tossing out more likely places to land, such as Florida or the East Coast. “But my life has had all these amazing twists and turns that have presented themselves to me.”

Moskalenko was hired last June to oversee the Center For the Performing Arts in Carmel — a sprawling complex that anchors the Carmel City Center, with 90 employees and a budget of $11 million.

At her last job, as director of the Germantown Performing Arts Centre in suburban Memphis, Tenn., she led 18 employees and $2 million budget.

In Carmel, she stepped into a role left vacant by the center’s first CEO, Steven Libman, who resigned in July 2011, two months after The Palladium’s grand opening and shortly after signing a five-year extension.

Libman’s exit was controversial after it was revealed that the city had hired a private investigator to look into his activities while he was CEO. He was ultimately paid $100,000 by the Carmel Redevelopment Commission in a settlement that served to avoid potential litigation and kept many details of his departure confidential.

Picking up the pieces, so far, has not been difficult, Moskalenko said. She has worked hard to establish relationships with both Mayor Jim Brainard and the Carmel City Council, who are often at odds over city funding issues.

“It’s unfortunate that things have been fraught from the beginning with so much turmoil and negativity,” she said. “But I think the possibilities here are just tremendous. I hope we can see that and get past all this other stuff.”

Moskalenko faced similar hurdles in Germantown, where she stepped into a job held by an executive director who had been asked to resign. Another similarity: Some arts supporters in Memphis perceived a “suburban-city divide” with Germantown, much like the perception of a “96th Street divide” here.

She is tackling that perception.

“I am having to reach across the boundary and make people understand that this is not just a Carmel amenity,” she said. “This is here for everybody. We should be working from a position of abundance, not a position of scarcity.

“I think there is a lot of fear about the pot; the pie is only so big, right? We need to get beyond that, especially when it comes to the fine arts. If we don’t work together, we are all going to sink.”

Moskalenko fell in love with the performing arts began at age 10, when a friend invited her to watch a ballet recital. She begged her parents for her own ballet lessons.

Times in Miami were not easy. Her mom had begun working at a hat factory and her dad had become a registered nurse. But she got her wish. Then, at age 18, Tania switched gears, enrolling at Florida International University to study international relations.

She dreamed of going undercover with the CIA and getting involved in foreign intrigue, perhaps in her homeland of Cuba or the Soviet Union. She got a part-time job working for an airline that scheduled flights for the Department of Defense.

“I actually had a security clearance, because they did military airlift command flights,” she said. “I was getting closer. I really did want to join the CIA.”

She decided to take flying lessons — another twist of fate, as she was introduced to Armando Castroverde, a pilot, who would become her first husband. Within two months of the marriage, he got a job with FedEx and the couple moved from Miami to Memphis. She was 23.

Nine years and three children later, she and her husband divorced. Moskalenko decided it was time to go back to school and pursue her first love — dance.

She went to a local ballet company for a one-day class and audition, with no plans to be taken seriously. But a month later, she got an offer for a four-year, full ride scholarship to study music at the University of Memphis.

“It was the universe telling me that this is the direction you are going,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a CIA agent, anyway, with three babies.”

In 1998, she graduated with a fine-arts degree in theater and dance and started her own dance company — Memphis Dance Group — at the Buckman Center, a small performing arts center housed at a high school.

The second half of her life was on.

As her career as a dance instructor gave way to her first management position, running the Buckman Center where she had been teaching, Moskalenko experienced another chance meeting that would change her life.

It happened one day when she showed up at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis to pick up her daughter, who was 14 at the time and a student of ballet with a role in “The Nutcracker.”

Going backstage, she ran into a Russian ballet professional named Alexei Moskalenko, an instructor at the theater. They had once taught at the same dance school several years earlier but did not know each other well.

“I remember we met and talked. And all of a sudden, he says ”˜Do you want to go skiing with a bunch of Russians?’ “ she said. “And I thought, I’ve never been in my life, but OK, let’s go skiing and drink some vodka.”

Alexei had his own story to tell, and it was very familiar to the girl from Cuba.

He was born in 1964 in Moscow, during the heart of the Soviet era, where (like Castro’s Cuba) life was hard and personal freedoms were unheard of.

Alexei was pushed by his parents to try to get into the Bolshoi Ballet, the internationally famous ballet school. At the age of 10, he made it and spent the next eight years getting his education and training to be a world-class ballet dancer.

Upon graduation, he became a professional dancer in Moscow, where he danced for nine years.
Meanwhile, the world was changing. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union was crumbling. In 1991, after seven decades of existence as one of the world’s super powers, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

A year later, Alexei Moskalenko started thinking it was time for him to leave his homeland. He started to think about America.

“Every dancer pretty much thought about it,” he said. “But it took so much guts to leave ... to leave everything behind.”

In 1992, he defected while on tour in Miami, choosing to take his chances despite speaking practically no English and without having a job. Survival meant picking up as many freelance dance jobs as he could. And that was not hard, given his talents.

Although he didn’t know it at the time, one night while he was dancing on a local stage, a young Cuban woman was in the audience with her husband and three daughters — a connection that wouldn’t be made until much later, when an old program in a box was unpacked.

In 1993, Alexei Moskalenko gained his legal residency status and eventually took a job dancing with the Memphis Ballet, where several years later, he would meet his future wife and invite her to spend a cold Christmas night drinking vodka on a mountain.

They were married Sept. 1, 2002, in Memphis.

Holiday dinners at the Carmel home of the Moskalenkos reflect cultural diversity in overdrive; Cuban dishes mix with Russian sides and American tradition.

The menu is likely to include rice and black beans, fried plantains, cranberry sauce with ginger, beets and a popular Russian dish, Olivier salad. There might also be Georgian chicken, Cuban flan and Russian borscht.

“It’s like all our cultures come together, but we also have the American traditional turkey (at Thanksgiving),” Tania Moskalenko said.

Joining them are their two children, 4-year-old twins Tatiana and Nikolas; her three daughters from her first marriage, Sasha, 27 (who lives in Boston); Mishi, 25 (New York City) and Amanda, 23 (Washington, D.C.).

Her parents, Lazaro and Julia Ulloa, married 55 years, still live in Miami.

When Moskalenko listens to Spotify, she leans toward classical and international sounds. Edith Piaf is a favorite; so is the band Pink Martini.

Artistically, she tells friends that she “likes her art tragic and transformational” — think films like “La Vie En Rose” and “Dr. Zhivago.”

Moskalenko hopes to use her role as head of the Center for the Performing Arts to bring her love of cultural diversity and traditions to life on the local stages.

“When we don’t understand a culture, there is a fear of who you are,” she said. “One way to get to someone is through their culture, their music, their dance, their food.

“In this way, we find our commonalities.”

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